Opening a Brand New Airport


Airport construction projects tend to be large and lengthy, spanning multiple phases, taking years to complete. When the big opening day of the new airport or terminal building finally arrives, only the tip of the iceberg is seen by the public, along with the political representatives, local dignitaries, airline CEOs and media lucky enough to attend the opening celebrations.

But what you don’t see at that moment is what happened behind the scenes; the relentless dedication, months, even years of long days (and nights), and the endless drive to keep working towards a successful opening. 

Preparations for New Airport Openings begin years before Inauguration day

What are the secret success factors when working towards the start of operations at an airport? We share nine tips towards success to consider at the start of a new airport project.

1. Carefully Map Processes in the New Infrastructure

Preparations for a new airport’s operational opening actually begin years before the official inauguration day. This includes developing a clear idea on how operational processes will work in new terminals, service areas and the overall airfield. Based on this, it is important to review these processes in detail, involving all major stakeholders such as aviation and security authorities, airlines, handling agents and other service providers. This is a key exercise that should be extended across several workshops each focusing on specific scopes to ensure an appropriate level of depth in the definitions. 

A fundamental part of carrying out the workshops will also be to identify and map out what airport staff member’s roles will involve, and/or how they will change. Onsite visits will help to mentally picture future processes and hence improve the quality of the training material to be produced.

2. Test Processes and Infrastructure

Once the building and construction work nears completion, it is time to put the mapped processes to the test. Again, this is best achieved by breaking down the entire process and cluster related activities into digestible portions. The goal here is to identify flaws, mistakes and wrong assumptions early, while corrective action – be it redesigning steps or sharpening training materials for staff – can be taken with minimal negative impact. No-one thinks of everything right away, so this stage is very much part of the process.

For complex, system-based processes, a staged testing approach is most efficient.Given the complex nature of processes where physical facilities, IT systems, data connectivity and people have to all work well to achieve a desired outcome, a staged testing approach is usually the most efficient route. That is, starting with a test of individual systems, then checking whether the system integrates well with other systems, followed by a systems-only process test and finally a full test of systems and employees together.

As seasoned airport professionals will affirm, in real-life operations, things tend to go off script frequently. This is all the more reason to really make sure all core processes can run consistently and reliably as intended. 

3. Involve Technical Departments at an Early Stage

Making changes according to lessons gained is just as important as gaining an early understanding on the reliability of processes within the complex airport infrastructure. For this reason, it is pivotal to involve the airport’s technical departments at an early stage regarding all aspects, ranging from construction, facilities and fittings to IT services. All solutions and fixes require time to develop, and more findings and conclusions will appear during the preparation process, meaning this internal partnership will remain crucial throughout.

4. Make Operational Results Measurable and Visible

In order to enable operations control units to be fully aware of the real operational situation across the entire airport, they need to have their finger on the pulse. Therefore setting these teams up to successfully manage the many operational challenges they will face will be dependent on selecting the right data points. 

Once selected, the next step is to share data with process partners – live or in regular reviews – in order for them to realize where precious time and efforts are lost, identifying where and how the operation could be run more efficiently as a result. 

Selecting the right data points enables ops control to have their finger on the pulse.

As an additional benefit, with the right alerts, supervisory teams will know where things are going wrong early on, enabling them to proactively address bottlenecks and shortages before they have any negative impact.

5. Ensure Support Functions and Facilities are Ready

If ramp activities from (un)loading, to fueling and pushing back aircraft are the heartbeat of an airport, the central Airport Control Centre (ACC) is the brain. Hence it is absolutely vital to ensure all integrated parties including airport, security, handling agents and ATC staff can do their job effectively. As the main lever of any operational decision making, dispatching of personnel and allocation of resources, the ACC is where numerous streams of information from multiple sources converge. All systems providing this fundamental set of real-time information must be tested thoroughly, and tested again. The same goes for any related or connected external systems, such as Airline’s or ATC’s. 

Equally important, central service desks and incident management teams of support services such as IT and facility management must not only be operationally ready but also dimensioned adequately to the new airport size and complexity. Established rapport between both operational controllers and technical coordinators will prove crucial in the heat of the opening days. 

6. Staff Training and Operational Readiness and Airport Transfer (ORAT) Trials

As pre-opening excitement builds, things start to get hot! Unlike the systems tests of the previous step, this is where all broken down sub-processes are put to the test with real-life scenarios, involving real people. The learnings from this step are fundamental, as they form the basis for the training of staff, who need to find their way around their new workplace. During training, special attention should be placed on processes that deviate from the norm, as human recollection often focusses on standard procedures, so exceptions need to be highlighted and repeated. 

Finally, the ORAT trials give planning and operations teams the opportunity to truly stress-test the resilience of processes by simulating substantially higher traffic loads than in previous checks and tests – practice makes perfect. Nonetheless you will come to the first day of ops finding multiple people untrained on new systems, processes and geographic orientation. So plan for some short notice training session capacities with your system-super users.

7. Readiness for Opening Day 

As the big opening day approaches, airport management should verify at frequent intervals that all stakeholders have sufficient resource available. This can be ensured by requesting explicit confirmation in writing and challenging this in several readiness meetings ahead of, and beyond, opening week. Moreover, all process partners should be required to have planned sufficient buffers into their rosters for the first weeks of operations to cater for unusual situations. Remember, not everything and everyone will be at the right place immediately from day one, as every party – from airport management to airline crews, handling agent staff and authority officials – has a learning curve ahead of them. 

ORAT trials allow planners to truly stress-test the resilience of processes.

The same is valid for internal airport departments as well. Management need to cross-functionally have agreed on common over-staffing and service levels for the same parts of the infrastructure to avoid single-points-of-failure in cooperation. Where specific resources require increased focus or priority, all involved departments need to be aware and ready. Likewise, in order for staff to fully concentrate on their roles, clear instructions on basic logistical issues are needed so they don’t divert from the job at hand. This entails giving people clear instructions on where they park their cars, and other practical guidance. 

8. Communications for the Big Day

The light in which any start of operations will be viewed is strongly determined by pre-existing expectations among several interested parties. It therefore makes a lot of sense to steer and influence these expectations beforehand, thus setting the scene for the context it will be evaluated in. These parties include public or private shareholders, the media, government or authority representatives, as well as the airport’s and operational process partners’ management and staff. In brief, a well thought out internal and external communications plan ensures that stakeholders know what to expect, management knows what to look out for, and operational teams and staff know what is expected of them.

Avoid the “focus trap”and actively manage the transition to business as usual.

The latter specifically includes clear guidelines on employee behavior to prevent undue social media activity or important processes being slowed by “spectating” employees. 

9. When Opening Day has Come and Gone 

A successful airport opening should by all means be properly celebrated and teams given the recognition they deserve. However, any time organizations of any kind or size collectively work towards a goal perceived as a major milestone, there is a tendency for it to become the complete focus of attention, especially in the final phase leading up to the big event. This often leads to a few “hangover days” after the inauguration, where performance drops sharply, as the “modus operandi” abruptly changes from “all hands on deck” to “normal ops”. 
Airport operations managers should avoid this “focus trap”, and actively manage the transition to business as usual. This can be achieved by preparing a separate plan for the post-opening period, in addition to the startup plan. As highlighted before, both individual staff and all involved organizations still need to gain routine in their new working environment. This is why sufficient buffers in staff rosters are so important. Do not relent in focusing on operational results, as the learning curve is just beginning.

In Summary

Success in opening a new airport is determined long before the actual start date. By allowing themselves to be guided by the nine steps presented above, airport managers can avoid common pitfalls and keep success factors in mind when planning and executing their opening sequences. They range from process design, systems integration and testing to repeatedly verifying readiness in both airport and partner organizations. Most important, as always, is making sure people are adequately trained and enabled to perform. In this sense, success really is a destination, and one that extends well beyond the inauguration ceremony.

Speak to an expert